Charter Schools

By Sara Hodon

Traditional schools cover the basics – reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic – but charter schools go one step further. Charter schools offer more focused, intensive curriculum in areas that traditional districts do not, or logistically cannot, provide. Students at charter schools still follow a curriculum similar to that of a traditional school, but also receive intensive study in specialized areas – an alternative that many parents are seriously considering for their children.

A charter school is established through a written statement of purpose that is adopted by the school’s home district. Their operating budgets are comprised largely of taxpayer dollars, although their budgets are considerably smaller than a public school. Charter schools offer many of the same core subjects as a public school – such as math, science, English, and electives like art and music – but what sets them apart is that they cater to a specific “niche.” While some charter schools provide a curriculum that specializes in a particular field, others provide a more intense general education than public schools. Students may seek out a charter school if their academic and professional interests fall outside of their local school district’s curriculum. For the 2011-2012 school year, the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website lists 154 charter schools operating throughout the state; approximately 6 are in the Lehigh Valley, with more expected to open within the next year. Charter schools operate in much the same way as public schools. Their teachers give grades. Students have a high level of accountability and responsibility. Logistically, students may walk to school or be bused. Yet there are a few key differences between a charter school and a public school.

According to Aldo Cavalli, director of the Lehigh Valley Academy Regional Charter School in Bethlehem, the most important benefit a charter school offers a family is choice – parents can choose how their children learn, as well as the environment in which they learn. “We have a structured environment,” Cavalli says. “We recently adopted a strict dress code, and we have high academic standards with a demanding curriculum.” Lehigh Valley Academy students follow a course schedule comprised of the traditional 45 minute class periods and longer, more intensive 90-minute “block” periods. After graduation, nearly 100% of the school’s students go on to college. Lehigh Valley Academy is an international baccalaureate school, whose programs are “student-focused and designed to develop the intellectual, personal, emotional, and social skills to live, learn, and work in a rapidly globalizing world,” according to the school’s website.  The school is run by a board of directors, and Cavalli says that all of the Academy’s board meetings are open to the public.

Some charter schools are designed to focus on students’ passions and professional aspirations. The Lehigh Valley Charter School of the Performing Arts (LVPA) in South Bethlehem is the only school of its kind in the Lehigh Valley, and one of only two in Pennsylvania (the other is in Pittsburgh). Diane LaBelle, President and CEO, says that at this school, students’ proficiency in both academics and art are equally important. “Public schools couldn’t do what we do, which is [having students] practicing their art for half a day while doing their academics,” she says. There are currently 475 students enrolled for the 2012-2013 school year. Juniors and seniors study art in the morning from 8:00 a.m. until 11:00 a.m. and spend the afternoons on their academics; freshmen and sophomores do the opposite, starting their days with English, math, and other school subjects. Students choose one of six disciplines for their art – dance, figure skating, instrumental music, theater, visual art, and vocal music – with various end goals in mind.” 99 percent of our students graduate. 95 percent of our students go on to a 2 or 4-year program or arts conservatory,” LaBelle says. Many LVPA students chose a charter school because they simply felt that they didn’t “belong” in their home school. “I think that a lot of our students are very passionate about their arts…there hasn’t always been a place for them to practice their arts, and LVPA is a place where they can do that. We’ve found that our kids knew that our school was different – when they walked in they knew that they had found home. Many of our kids come from places where they didn’t do very well; they come here and come into who they are. It builds their self-esteem, and they excel.”

Other charter schools provide opportunities for students to explore the career paths that interest them, often in great depth. This can save parents thousands of tuition dollars in the future, while their child samples different college majors until they find one that appeals to them. One of the Valley’s newest charter schools, the Medical Academy Charter School in Catasauqua, scheduled to open in September 2012, is among them. “We offer all of the basic academic core subjects that you’d find in a regular high school, but the underlying focus in all of the subject areas is related to preparing students for a future in the healthcare professions,” explains Phil Arnold, COO. “Someone could potentially graduate from the high school and immediately go into a professional job, or be college-ready to continue their education.” Medical Academy students receive numerous observational and hands-on experiences in their junior and senior years in a variety of medical disciplines, with the intent that one will spark their interest. In this way it resembles a medical student’s rotation in various departments until they choose their area of specialty. The Medical Academy was started by a physician at St. Luke’s Hospital who saw a shortage of workers in the healthcare professions, from executives on down. “There were also lots of individuals who didn’t seem fully prepared to go into the health care field,” Arnold explains. “There was a lack of hands-on experience, and students weren’t well informed about the different areas.” Students must maintain a 3.8 GPA to participate in the on-site experiences, so expectations are high.

Families are invited to research the charter schools that may appeal to their child’s academic and professional interests, and all of the school leaders strongly recommend attending an open house or scheduling an individual visit. For LVPA, students are admitted on the strength of their audition or portfolio review conducted by school staff. Most charter schools accept students using a lottery system, and waiting lists are not uncommon.

Charter schools may offer an attractive alternative for a student who may not feel as academically challenged at their home school as they would like to be. “A charter school is either offering a particular type of enhanced curriculum with extra depth, or a much more rigorous and challenging curriculum than a mainstream public school, which is trying to provide an academic experience to a wide, wide variety of students,” Arnold says.

Lehigh Valley Academy
1560 Valley Center Parkway, Ste. 200
Bethlehem, PA 18017

Lehigh Valley Charter School for the Performing Arts
675 E. Broad St., Bethlehem, PA 18018

Medical Academy Charter School
330 Howertown Road, Catasauqua, PA

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